A Case for Artists Using Assistants

A Case for Artists Using Assistants

There seems to be a perception among some that a piece of art must be created by one person - the artist. This may go back to the idea of the artist having genius-like abilities and that only they could create the finished masterpiece. This way of thinking about art goes back to the Romantic era. Noah Charney writes, "Then the Romantic era [1770-1850] promoted the idea of lonely, forlorn, brooding artists struggling to make ends meet but producing powerful art at great personal sacrifice. This idea has melodramatic appeal, and it stuck in the popular imagination." Clement Greenberg's theories of the 1960s and superstars of the Abstract Expressionism movement promoted this idea further.

This couldn't be more from the truth for much of art history. Artists were viewed as craftsmen as far back as ancient Egypt in 2500 BCE and ancient Rome and Greece in 500 BCE. As skilled laborers, these artisans didn't sign the finished product. There are a few exceptions, of course, but for the most part, artists produced a good. Fast forward to when artists were becoming famous figures - the Italian Renaissance. Sandro Botticelli started off working in the studio of artist Fra Filippo Lippi and then Antonio del Pollaiuolo before he was offered his own studio in the Medici Palace. He and other famous artists received accolades from prominent families and royalty while having known studios. Employing assistants did not diminish their talent or reputation; on the contrary, it was expected. Artists required assistants to produce a high quality and high quantity of art.

So why are we averse to it today? I argue that this goes back to the dilemma of technical skill. I touched on this in the post, Abstract Art Isn't Scary. If we put forth that a "good" work of art must have an overwhelming amount of visible technical skill then it would make sense to conclude that work could only be created by one individual. This goes out the window when the concept of a studio or workshop of assistants is thrown into the mix. My goal with the following examples is to make a case for artists using assistants. An artwork can still be valuable when there are multiple hands involved in the creation.  

Petah Coyne

Petah Coyne (1953- ) creates whimsical larger than life chandeliers that seem to be straight out of a fictional world. Taxidermy birds, melted candles, and flowers make up the over six feet tall sculptures. Coyne work spans other media as well - her black and white photographs of figures in motion convey a sense of frantic energy while her large sculptures remain oddly still. While her photographs are a solitary process, Coyne utilizes assistants to assemble the parts and whole of her large-scale sculptures. What makes Coyne a minority is not that she uses assistants, but that she regularly talks about them as part of her art making process. It is not surprising to think of her art as a team project after looking at images of her sculptures.

For her 1998 exhibit at Galerie Lelong, Coyne planned to use horse hair, from her friend artist Ann Hamilton, to make intricate lace-like weavings. Stumbling blocks, insecurities, and negative feedback from friends resulted in her exhibit being postponed and ideas being reworked. In Judith H Dobrzynski's article for the New York Times, Coyne talks about this mad dash to the finish, "'I said for sure I'd be ready in September, so that's when I got interns,' she said. Eight of them at a time came, mostly from art schools. 'It was like a sewing circle,' Ms. Coyne said. 'I wouldn't let them talk. We listened to books on tape. Because this is 'Fairy Tales,' a lot of the books on tape were fairy tales. My payback to them was to have visiting artists come at lunchtime that they could talk to. They were so great. It was so hot, and they wove eight hours a day, four days a week.'" The result of their labor is an exhibit fitting of its name. The dark horsehair sculptures look as if they belong in a Grimms Brothers story or a Tim Burton film. In one sculpture, whispy tentacles converged to form the ghostly shape of crows. In another larger installation, tree-like shapes bend and sag as if an invisible weight is pulling them down. The horsehair covering them evokes the look of spider webs and a chard landscape. 

This lush and time extensive process of creation carried over to her more recent sculptures. Coyne used melted white wax to methodically build up layer after layer. These works, likewise, required several assistants to create the finished product. The National Museum of Women in the Arts comments, "Coyne’s creations are extremely labor- and time-intensive. Their layered materials provide a visual record of the passage of time during Coyne’s creation of the piece." Another point to note is that Coyne's use of assistants is not for lack of experience. She makes her living as an artist, with works selling for up to $35,000. She's also been exhibited widely and awarded many fellowships. Her works belong to the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the High Museum in Atlanta, and the Corcoran Gallery in D.C. (to name a few). On the contrary, Coyne calls in extra hands to keep producing high-level quality work. When not leading up to the opening of a large exhibit (as was the situation with Fairy Tales) Coyne employees three part-time assistants, all of whom are artists themselves.  

Jeff Koons

No one can inspire ire and irritation in the public quite the way Jeff Koons (1955- ) can. He has been bashed as unskilled and not a "real" artist. Best known for his glossy larger than life sculptures of balloon animals, Koons is a conceptual artist. His Micheal Jackson and Bubbles sculpture draw connections to Pop and kitsch rather than the style of other conceptual artists like Joseph Kosuth or Sol LeWitt. Koons's conceptual label comes from his work ethic rather than the finished aesthetic. The idea and plan for the artwork come from Koons, but the execution is carried out by fabricators and studio assistants. His famous balloon animal series falls into the former category of fabricators while his newer Gazing Ball series is produced by the latter. Koons employed 100 assistants to copy old masterpieces to which he later inserted a colorful gazing ball, think your grandmother's garden. After the series was finished Koons started rounds of layoffs, three rounds total since they began in 2015. The layoffs seem simple at first glance. An artist who predominately produces sculpture doesn't need 100 painting assistants.

However, it was this round of layoffs, plus rumbling of his treatment of assistants, that garnered Koons media attention. While the news that Koons was vastly underpaying his assistants ($21 an hour when just one Balloon Dog sculpture sold for $58 million), people were more outraged to learn the artist doesn't physically put his hands on the art. How can that be a Jeff Koons if he didn't paint it!? Modern art fundamentally changed the way we think about a work of art. We went from paintings that required hours of tedious labor and technical skill to artwork made with modern materials that do not require the artist's touch. Modern and contemporary art embraces innovation which in our industrial age allows the artist to remove their hands from the production. As viewers, we can still love oil paintings from the Italian Renaissance and a minimalist sculpture by Donald Judd or Jeff Koons's kitsch. We have to train ourselves to stop comparing time periods.

Final Thoughts - the New Modern Studio

Having a studio should not disqualify someone from the title of "artist." If modern art has taught us anything it is that sometimes the idea of something is just as powerful as the creation of something. However, the concept of the artist studio has fundamentally changed from the Italian Renaissance to the contemporary art world. Artists like Botticelli, Raphael, and even Michelangelo started out as studio assistants and work their way up to master of their own studio. Whereas, today assistants cannot. Social media and the internet make up for the exposure and networking opportunities that studio assistant used to get. That being said, our modern studio system must adapt to provide an even exchange between the artist and assistant. Petah Coyne is an example of an artist who still tries to provide education and networking opportunities for her assistants.

However, this concept can easily become blurred in modern studios. Unbalanced exchanges, like in Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst's studios, that result in exploitation should be of more concern than the fact that there is a studio to start. I argue that the public perception of artists should expand to include the possibility of studios. The counter-argument (and possibly the larger issue) would be, "Why is a working being made by 30 people selling for millions of dollars under the name of one person?" In previous periods it is common to see a painting by "the school of Raphael" or "the studio of Michelangelo" whereas today you would never expect a Gazing Ball painting to say "the studio of Jeff Koons." Modern art has changed not only the way we think about art but the way studios are run. It's time they went through their own Renaissance.

Links / articles mentioned

Judith H. Dobrzynski - Steadily Weaving Toward Her Goal; Petah Coyne's Art Strategy Has Its Scary Moments - The New York Times. 

Artist Entry - National Museum of Women in the Arts 

Suzaan Boettger - Petah Coyne: Not Afraid of the Dark - Art in America

Jan Garden Castro - Controlled Passion: A Conversation with Petah Coyne - Sculpture Magazine

Jeff Koons in 'Fantasy' - art21

I was Jeff Koon's Studio Serf - The New York Times

Julia Halperin and Brian Boucher - Jeff Koons Radically Downsizes His Studio, Laying Off Half His Painting Staff - artnet

Noah Charney - Did Jeff really paint that Koons? Working at a modern studio isn’t exactly a Renaissance apprenticeship - Salon


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